God has a plan for death

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Sermon for Trinity 16

1 Kings 17:17-24  +  Ephesians 3:13-21  +  Luke 7:11-17

How could God let him die?  The prophet of God was so close, living right there under the same roof.  The widow of Zarephath had taken Elijah in and provided food and shelter for him and trusted in his word that the jar of flour would not run out and the jug of oil would not run dry.  And yet God took her son away anyway, her only son.  How could He do that?

God had a plan for that boy’s death, a plan to do something even more important than keeping that boy alive.  The plan was to bring the boy back to life through the word of the prophet, and so to confirm the faith of widow and of her son, as she said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” Why was that important?  Because to trust in the word of God’s prophet is to conquer, not only the death of the body, but the death of the soul.  To trust in the word of God’s prophet is to vanquish sin and hell and death and every curse imposed by sin.  God had a plan for death that day, a good plan, a plan of salvation and life.

The same is true in today’s Gospel.  Sometimes in the Gospels we see examples for us to imitate, examples of faith like the faith of the centurion who trusted in Jesus’ word to heal his servant from afar.  That’s the account that comes right before our Gospel today.  But sometimes, as in today’s Gospel, we see no one running to Jesus for help.  On the contrary, we see Jesus running to help the lives that have been broken by sin and death.  We see the face of God who is moved to compassion by our tears.  We see the word of God’s Prophet doing what it has always done—creating life where there was only death, and confirming faith in those who had no strength of their own to believe. We see the God who has a plan for death.

It sure didn’t look that way when Jesus approached the town of Nain.  It was the saddest kind of funeral procession.  It’s horrible enough when the elderly die.  But when a young man dies… When the only son of a widow dies… Why would God let such a thing happen? Didn’t He know how hard it would be for that widowed mother?  Something so terrible couldn’t possibly be for good to those who love God.  How cruel, the devil whispers.  He must not care.  A good God wouldn’t do that, would He?

But look, is God really indifferent to this death?  See how God acts in the Person of Jesus Christ.  See how He is moved by the widow’s tears!  When He sees the dead man being carried out of the city gates, when He sees the mourners walking in procession, when He sees the widow weeping, He doesn’t just go whistling by, does He?  On the contrary, when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.

You see, the devil is a liar, and has been since the beginning.  He is a murderer.  And we are his accomplices.  God did not plan death for the human race.  The devil did.  God is not responsible for death.   We are. Sinners are.  The soul that sins is the one who will die.  Ever since Adam and Eve, sinners have been blaming other people, even God Himself, for their troubles.  But that’s wrong.  We are the sinners, not God.

But God has a plan to help sinners, condemned to death by our sin.  His plan to help doesn’t involve preventing death.  It doesn’t work that way.  Instead, His plan uses death, turns death into His slave and forces death to do His bidding.  God sent His only Son into the world to save sinners, not by removing death—not yet, but by submitting to it.  By submitting to the hatred of sinners, by submitting to the persecution of those who hated Him and His Gospel, by submitting to the punishment of suffering and the curse of death on a cross, Jesus has become the curse for us, has made atonement for us, has paid for the sins of all sinners and has won the gift of eternal life for all, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

But how are we to believe in Him?  We see only death all around.  We see the Gospel being persecuted all over the world and right here in our midst.  We see the Church tormented and battered, weeping and mourning.

But look!  What does Jesus say to the widow in mourning?  “Do not weep.”  And to the dead young man who had zero capacity to hear Jesus’ words, much less to obey them, Jesus spoke anyway and said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”  And he arose.  Just like that.  And he started to speak.  And Jesus gave him to his mother.

The word of Jesus is that powerful.  The Gospel of Jesus is that mighty.  It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans.  It is the Gospel of Christ that calls out to dead sinners, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved!”  And by the power of God, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, the dead arise.  Those who were dead in unbelief become believers.

This is exactly what Jesus is talking about in John 5.  For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.

You see, He says that an hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  That’s you who were dead in sins, dead in trespasses, dead in unbelief but have heard of the Word of Christ and have been brought to faith, have been brought to life.  The word of Jesus has already visited your graves and has emptied them.  You have passed from death to life.  This is the verdict of Christ, the judge, that no matter how great your sins have been, no matter how unworthy you are to spend eternity with God in heaven, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.

That, my friends, is the forgiveness of sins and it is yours right now through faith in Christ Jesus.  And if your sins are forgiven, then you have eternal life.  If your sins are forgiven, then you have access to God, you have been born again, raised from the dead, adopted as God’s child. If your sins are forgiven, then death cannot harm you and there is now no condemnation, because you are in Christ Jesus.  How?  Not by works.  Not by your doing or by your choice.  But by faith in Him, faith that He has given you, faith that He has worked in you by the almighty power of His Word that gives life to those who were dead.

Do you see why I will not speak like some people would require me to speak?  How can I say that unbelievers have been forgiven already, but are still going to hell?  If your sins have been forgiven you, you are not going to hell.  You will not die in your sins.  Forgiveness means something.  And when I pour water on you in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and when I absolve you of your sins, that is Jesus Himself speaking forgiveness to you, speaking life into your hearts, by the same almighty power with which He raised the young man of Nain.

Jesus isn’t done bringing the dead to life.  He will continue sending forth His Spirit until the Last Day, calling the dead through the Gospel, enlightening us with His gifts, sanctifying and keeping us in the true faith.  And then Jesus will do for us who believe in Him something even greater than He did for the young man of Nain.  Jesus raised his body back to temporal life.  But on that day, He will destroy death forever.  On that day, He will take these mortal bodies and transform them into glorious bodies like His resurrected body, as He says in John’s Gospel, an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

Today’s Gospel teaches us to trust in Christ, who is moved to compassion by our tears, to trust in Christ who entered our death-filled world to suffer death once for all, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  Today’s Gospel teaches us to trust in the word of Christ, who comforts those who mourn, who strengthens those who are weak, who gives life to the dead and who now uses death to serve His plan of salvation, to serve as a doorway to eternal life.  This is God’s plan for death.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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